Friday, April 9, 2010

Conventional Wisdom

WARNING: This post may contain observations that run counter to conventional wisdom. Don't say you weren't warned.

The trendy thing among a certain school of school reformers lately has been to point to New Orleans post-Katrina as a model of education reform.

Newsweek writes that "New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out." Arne Duncan said that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." The conventional wisdom says that with the New Orleans school system (and much of the city) destroyed, reformers were able to start from scratch and put in a system based on what we know works for kids. And just look at the results.

Let's look at those results for a moment. An article in the Houston Chronicle this week highlights a study that finds that Katrina kids are doing better than their Texas counterparts. In Texas. That's right, Texas. Not New Orleans. It seems that the kids who relocated to Texas after the hurricane and stayed there are doing better in the Texas school system than the kids from Texas in the Texas school system.

Here's where your conventional wisdom gets challenged. If the reason kids are doing so much better now in New Orleans is that the school system has been completely reformed, why are kids also excelling in Texas? Let's grant for the sake of argument that the New Orleans schools were terrible before Katrina. So obviously there's a lot of room for improvement with these kids. But if it's the brilliant new system that's doing it, why are the kids in Texas also making such gains? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't often see Houston hailed as the brightest star in the education reform firmament.

Now, I'm perfectly willing to believe that there's a rational explanation that will keep the conventional wisdom intact. I know that reading a summary of research from the Texas Education Agency in the Houston Chronicle is not exactly top notch research. But I do think we need to consider all the data when we're making grand pronouncements. And I just don't quite see how this fits the narrative.

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